Welcome to Notes from the Field

Greetings! My name is Dawn Willoughby and I am a lifelong horse-lover. For me, it's all about building a companionship that works for horse and human. If you are also that type of person, you might just enjoy reading my posts, written for the owner or enthusiast.

Notes from the Field

I was a professional trimmer for 6 years but have now switched gears to in-hand and mounted training that words like physical therapy for the horse. I will however help folks online with trimming and do clinics for owner-trimmers.  Drew Knox and I, Annie the Rottweiler and Sunny the Thoroughbred live in Delaware. Kids are grown and flown. I look forward to hearing from you. I maintain an educational site for the natural horse enthusiast at 4 Sweet Feet.

Enjoy and happy trails!

What to Expect When You and Your Horse Go Barefoot

Going barefoot with a natural trim and boots for riding, is not without its twists, turns and bumps in the road. I was a professional trimmer working in Delaware for six years. During that time, I specialized in teaching owners, mostly women, to trim their personal horse(s). I quickly learned that in addition to teaching them to trim, I had to prepare the owners for issues they might face, if transitioning to bare feet were to be successful.

Some Challenges to be Aware Of
  1. Criticism
  2. Soundness
  3. Chipping of the hoof wall
  4. Abscesses
  5. Rehabbing cracks, holes and other deformities
  6. Concerns post-rehab
  7. Building a strong back-of-foot

1. Expect Criticism.
Brace yourself! Unless you own the farm, you should expect to get looks ranging from concern to downright disgust from your fellow equestrians and barn manager, trainers, vets and farriers. Many think you are torturing your horse. 'Look the poor horse can't walk on gravel' is one of the most common remarks. Most people, professional or not, do not understand the hoof. Neither veterinarian nor farrier books are entirely correct when it comes to the hoof and its mechanics, according to Dr. Robert Bowker, world renowned researcher. Farrier training focuses on shoeing not growing great barefeet
Big Band Show "Banjo", barefoot. Former steeplechaser.

Former steeplechaser, Big Band Show, "Banjo", was often described as a hot house flower. But after I pulled his shoes, the debilitating episodes of rain rot and hives and bug bites swelling to the size of my hand all vanished. He was my previous horse and the first I transitioned to bare feet. This proves even a newbie can make a huge difference!

No one can argue with success. Over time your horse's hooves will look fantastic. And most importantly, with correct blood flow, your horse will become healthier. There may be a time when most of the shod horses in your barn are covered with rain rot, but you, my friend, will be out on the trail. Commiserate with your friends who can't ride; then plant a seed for bare feet, boots and blood flow!

Until then, I encouraged my clients to educate themselves so they understood the advantages of having a barefoot horse. Personally, if I ever found a horse who could not be ridden barefoot in padded boots, I would recommend he be retired. It's not fair to ride a horse with that much damage.

Shoes, whether metal or plastic, nailed or glued, are a short term band aid not a fix.
From the very first trim, most horses walk off sound.

Soundness: I expect most horses to walk soundly after every trim. If there is any tenderness, I figure out what's going on. If I did something wrong, I apologize to horse and owner. Then don't repeat!

2. Soundness. After each trim, your horse should walk soundly.
When I first began trimming, I followed some excellent advice from Dr. Tomas Teskey. He recommended that after I pulled shoes, one nail at a time, I just round the edges of the hoof wall and even-up the heels. “Make no big changes on the first trim,” he suggested. “To the horse, it feels like you just pulled off half his hoof. Give him a month to adjust.” What great advice that was. The horses certainly appreciated it. I just had to alert the owners about the expected chipping of the walls (more on that below).

Most horses walk off from every trim, sound on grass. There are two major exceptions: First, 'navicular disease or syndrome'. Second, the overly trimmed horse.
Toe pointing to releave pain.

This poor shod guy (not my client) has had Back-of-Foot Pain for years. He points first one foot then the other to relieve the pain in the back of his foot. The traditional world calls it 'navicular syndrome or disease' but the navicular bone is just an innocent bystander. In fact the coffin bone suffers more damage when he lands toe first. Pull the shoes, therapeutically boot if necessary. Apply the natural trim and treat the frog. This will rehab the back of the foot. Rehab is straight forward. Dr. James Rooney, author of The Lame Horse, clarified the problem and treatment in 1975 and yet 36 years later horses are being put in bar shoes, being wedged every 6 weeks, having their nerves cut and eventually euthanized.

Many domestic horses, and especially ones who are shod, have a weak back-of-foot. You may see thrushy frogs and contracted heels which are protecting the back of his foot. When I pull shoes on a compromised horse like this, he may well be lame. He walks incorrectly, by landing toes first. This is an obvious compensation for a sore back-of-foot. The fix? Padded Rx boots of course. And time.

The conventional world calls this navicular syndrome or disease, which in my mind is a misnomer. Back-of-Foot-Pain doesn't exactly slide off the tongue but that's what it is. And it is fixable. According to Pete Ramey, his worst case of BFP, when rehabbed, was pasture-sound but needed boots for riding. Not too bad considering all the horses he works on.

At a rescue some years ago, I put one foot-sore boy in Epics with a half inch pad and off he went. First, he tested the walk, then trot, then extended trot, then all hell broke loose as he galloped off, kicking and bucking. This former racehorse hadn't broken out of a shuffle for five years!
There wasn't a dry eye at the gate.

Now I'd use the Rx Boot as there is more airflow and they are less expensive. I would however replace the quarter inch pad included with a half inch one. If there is no thrush, Equicasts are another option, particularly good for the owner who doesn't visit daily.

What if your horse walks off lame after a routine trim? Consider whether he was over-trimmed. Anyone can make a mistake but there are aggressive trimming styles that I don't recommend. You can not grow a good foot on a horse who is too sore to walk correctly. If a trimmer is repeatedly over-trimming, fire him.

One aspect of correct movement is a flat or heel-first landing at the walk and heel-first landing at other gaits. It's easy to spot a toe-first landing while walking your horse in sand. The toe kicks the sand up. I would be particularly concerned if I saw routine sole and frog trimming.

If one more person asks me when her horse can go on rocks, I am taking myself out to the back shed! If your horse lives on rocks, he will adapt. If not, BOOT. Horses adapt to what they live on.
Thin, shelly racehorse feet easily crack.

Chipping: Thin, shelly racehorse hoof wall with lots of laminitic rings easily cracks. You can grow a well connected hoof (wall to coffin bone) in one hoof growth. But it takes a few capsule growths to get a thick, healthy wall.

Another great Thoroughbred foot.

Another great Thoroughbred foot. Smooth walls devoid of lamintic rings. Mustang Roll on the ground has replaced the chipping. As for shape, it is definitely a more upright foot. Notice the more cone shaped hind feet. This is the foot the horse wants.

3. After the shoes come off, hoof walls chip
If your horse is coming out of shoes, you should absolutely expect the hoof wall to chip. Chipping is a good thing. There is no way your horse can gallop on walls with holes in them. I promise you that the hoof will not fall off. Wall chipping is similar to growing out your own nails after wearing polish for a long time. Nails chip and flake until the unhealthy bit is grown out. Once you get past the nail holes, you should be in good shape.
Doc blew out the left, rear of his right hind sole.

Abscess: Here an OTTB, Doctor Clayton, has blown out the back of his sole next to the bar with an abscess. Once erupted, he felt great.

4. Some Horses Abscess.
During transition to a natural trim, I do not expect a horse to abscess but I let owners know that on occasion a horse can develop them. In some cases, the horse looks like he has broken a leg; we call that 'three legged lame'. Forewarned is forearmed. After all, I don't want the owner dashing back to shoes!

Abscessing can be frightening to an owner. Honestly, during my six year career, I have had only one horse abscess soon after a trim. One of his lateral cartilage looked so laid-over and mushy, that we actually had a vet out to look at him. It took a while but he got himself rearranged.
Peanut blew out the laminae.

November. Peanut's abscess exploded through his laminae creating the black hole of Calcutta. He was never lame on this foot! The owner soaked him weekly in White Lightening to keep the area free of bacteria and fungus. Obviously it was full of dirt most of the time. Do try stuffing the area with cotton balls. This is not white line disease.

Hoof repairs itself.

December. I left sole and wall in place to provide what little structure he had. The wall was well angled so that it pressed in, rather than away from the horse. Traditionalists would have trimmed wall and sole, even resectioning all disconnected wall. That may have made the area look more attractive but by reducing the structure, Peanut may have gone lame. There was no special bandaging. He never took a bad step and was ridden throughout.

Feel free to ask your trimmer what they experience during the rehab. If they expect abscesses as a natural part of the healing transition from shod or farrier trim to good barefeet, I would not use them. Over-trimming is a common cause of abscesses.

Just as healthy humans get colds; healthy horses get abscesses. It can be painful to watch, but as long as the horse is generally in good health, I am not disturbed. As any horse person will say, "It's far from the heart." Do call your vet if you are concerned.
Soaking the foot may encourage the abscess to blow.

Here's a pleasant way to soak! Doctor Clayton, "Doc", former racehorse, is a premier trail horse, as you can see. He is in padded Epics on front. Owner Bette is on board.

Abscesses often release in soft areas like the coronary band, the laminae (aka white line), and around the frog and heel bulbs. One day the horse can't move and the next he is fine. The abscess either reabsorbed or erupted. If the latter, you can usually find the drainage spot. Some horses don't even go lame. If the abscess breaks out the coronary band, you will notice a horizontal line growing down the hoof in six weeks. When it reaches the ground, expect the hoof to chip.
Garwin's amazingly flared hooves.

As I walked into Garwin's barn, I thought, "The excised soles are the least of your problems." Holy Mackeral! Check the flare.

Excised sole after months of growth still looks painful.

After months of bandaging and stalling, Garwin's sole slowly repairs itself.
We put padded Epics on Garwin and he happily trotted in his pasture. He even trotted down hill on the driveway. Sub solar abscesses will drain and as the underlying "baby" sole develops, the top sole will slough off. No need for surgery.

Typically abscesses resolve in a week or two, but I have seen them last for a couple months. On rare occasions, the horse may experience swelling of the entire leg. Garwin, had sub solar abscesses in both front hooves. The cause of the problem, pathologically shaped hooves, was never addressed. In frustration, the owner learned to trim and has fully rehabilitated him. Garwin is now competing, booted in Gloves, all around.
Lyndsay and Garwin having the time of their lives!

Owner Lyndsay rehabbed Garwin and here they are in 2011 having the ride of their lives!

As for treatment of abscesses, I am not sure anything really helps. I put Ichthammol, that disgusting black stuff, around the coronary band, frog and heels bulbs to keep the areas soft, encourage eruption. Soaking would have the same result. I used to wrap the foot in a baby diaper with moistened Epsom salts but honestly I don't think the abscesses resolved any faster. Every one seems to have a different recipe.
Wakefield's amazing crack.

Cracks: Wakefield  His five year old crack is due to the huge flare and misshapen foot.

Wakefield has almost grown out his crack.

I taught his owner to trim and out it grew! He was such a handful to trim: a very large, moving target. In hindsight, I should have taken some time to clicker train him. He never took a bad step throughout the rehab!

5. The Natural Trim facilitates the repair of wall cracks, holes and other deformities.
When I met Wakefield, above, his very impressive crack was five years old. His farrier was preparing to shoe him and add a metal bridge to pull the crack together. I hope you can tell from the photo that the cause of the crack is the flared wall. With each 'pasture trim', where the bottom is trimmed flat, the toe was getting longer and the flare more severe. The trim maintained the crack, as would shoes. (Please see Learning to Evaluate Your Horse's Feet for more details.)
I taught the owner to trim Wakie and within seven months the crack was gone. When there are many cracks or wide ones, I recommend soaking weekly in dilute apple cider vinegar 50%, dilute bleach 10%, or my favorite, White Lightening. Assume long standing cracks have bacteria or fungus in them. Soaking creates a healthy environment enabling the horse to repair the walls and grow out the cracks. It is a straight forward rehabilitation.

This is a foundation broodmare, former racehorse, with 1" of good connection of hoof wall to coffin bone at the top, then a long flared capsule with deep cracks. Of course the soles are flat because the coffin bone is not fully connected to the wall.

A small abount of White Lightening plus Vinegar in an enclosed baggie allows the deep penetration of gases.

I soaked with White Lightening/Vinegar as directed. The deeply penetrating gases eliminate bacteria and fungus that would thwart our progress. The foot must be bagged to trap the gases, then put in a Soaker, so the baggie won't rip.

This foundation, thoroughbred broodmare was severely flared. It was of special interest to me that she had been barren for a few years. I wondered if rehabbing her feet, providing ideal blood flow, might correct the situation.

By relieving the mechanical stress of the flared wall and eliminating bacteria and fungus with a soak, the hooves began to repair, immediately. I soaked every foot in White Lightening during the trim.

In the Reader's Digest version of natural hoof repair, Dr. Robert Bowker says there are grocery bags of keratin traveling along the laminae attached to the coffin bone. The keratin creates and repairs hoof wall. 50% or so of the wall is created from within, while 50% grows from the coronary band. Her smaller cracks closed with the first mustang roll which relieved some mechanical stress on the wall.

I wish I had a graduation photo of this lovely girl but she developed colic and was put down several months after I started working with her.
Toe Crack.

Cracks etc. on Good Feet, the Good Foot Continuum: Good hooves aren't static. Some days they are perfect, and another there's a crack or thrush, especially in wet climates! Much of this toe crack has healed before reaching the ground. The mechanics were off and the wall cracks to accomodate. That's its job.

Hint of a quarter crack.

More on The Good Hoof Continuum. See the hint of a quarter crack. This is where the hoof has challenges. Over time, as the hoof improves, many horse develop a 'scoop' or arch at ground level, at their quarters, an area of expansion when the horse is moving. I don't trim (force) a scoop but prefer to wait until the horse creates it. They know how much structure versus flexibility they need.

6. Wall Cracks and Flare on Good Feet.
From time to time, quarter cracks on the side of the hoof and toe cracks in the front will develop on good feet. I have seen this most often on Thoroughbreds whose walls seem to max out at 1/4” thick. If the foot mechanics are a bit off, cracks may appear. Don't apply any goop! Horses like hard hooves.
This is yet another reason to learn to trim your own horse. With a weekly tune up, you keep the hooves just as nature intended on the best feral feet, perfectly balanced.
Even with great hooves, horses aren't impervious to lamintis due to spring grass and the wall flare that is ensues. Certainly a good trim helps but the key is diet. When I experience flare, I trim a steeper mustang roll and grow it out. See The Challenges of Spring Grass: Preventing Laminitis and Founder.
Coffin bone with lateral cartilage.

Back-Of-Foot: From the The Glass Horse. The front half of the foot is coffin bone and the back half is lateral cartilage. This is correct for a feral horse.  In our domestic horses, you would be happy with a cartilage half that length and much thinner.
The creators forgot the digital cushion located in back between the cartilages. (Reminder that none of the texts are entirely correct when it comes to the hoof. Here's your proof.)

7. Building a Strong Back of Foot: Frog, Digital Cushion, Lateral Cartilages and Heels.
Your horse must land solidly on the back of his foot, innumerable times, to create a callused frog, above it, internally, a robust digital cushion and to either side, strong lateral cartilages. The internal structures respond to pressure-release. That's why we trimmers hate stalling so much. Find ways of keeping your horse moving, like Paddock Paradise. That's what the equine is designed for.
If shod in metal or plastic, your horse's frog, digital cushion and lateral cartilages are all taken out of the equation. The internal structures stop developing. Proprioceptor nerves that tell your horse where his feet are in space atrophy. The number of specialized blood vessels in all the structures diminish significantly. In other words, your aged horse could be walking around on the digital cushion of a 2 year old, if that is when he was first shod!
Central sulcus is growing in.

The central sulcus of the frog above is filling in, inside to outside. It sort of blossoms into a sulcas. Don't trim it.

Repairing frog.

This frog is a bit behind the one above but still on the path to health. Notice how close the heels are. The back half of the foot looks sqeezed in. As it all rehabs, the heels will open up, but slowly. The owner's responsiblity is to keep the frog healthy and encourage as much sound movement as possible.

In a barefoot horse, a healthy, callused frog is not routinely trimmed. Just keep the flaps and tags trimmed to avoid thrush. Kitchen scissors work just fine. The pressure-release in all gaits rebuilds the digital cushion, located above the frog. With a strong frog and digital cushion, the heels will usually decontract and begin work properly.
Contracted heels and lateral cartilage is shoved up leg.

The frog is thin and unhealthy; can you see the butt crack running up the back? Heels are contracted. I have marked the cartilages in the hair above the hoof to show how shoved up (bad) the leg they are. Granit, shod most of her life and here in her 20's, transitioned out of shoes easily and was ridden in boots. Her heels opened up a lot but not completely.

When contracted, the heels essentially form protection for the back of the foot, most commonly an unhealthy frog. Every time the horse lands, the heels go in, rather than out. Even rehabbed horses can develop contracted heels when their frogs are unhealthy for an extended period of time. My recommendation is to continue treatment until the frog looks and feels healthy. Please don't stop just because your the horse isn't flinching from pain. The central sulcas should look like a thumb print. In the meantime, I let the heels grow a tiny bit to protect the sore frog. (Please see Resources below for more information in a special series in The Horse's Hoof.)
On either side of the back of the coffin bone, the lateral cartilages also develop from pressure-release when the horse moves from the right and left side of his foot, 'yaw'. Pressure-release is the only way lateral cartilages develop size, firmness and regrow specialized blood vessels.

The mass of specialized blood vessel provides energy dissipation in both lateral cartilages and the digital cushion. Nike could not do better!

In Conclusion
The natural trim, combined with lots of movement heals. Rehabilitation takes a while. Generally we bipeds are an impatient species. I encourage you to ride your horse in padded boots if he is ouchy and avoid walking on harsh surfaces when he is bare. Get as much right about natural horse care as you can. Then enjoy watching your horse blossom.
Mikayla and Lady

Sunny with me on board, trotting down the Brandywine. Padded Epics on the front. As I write this we ride out in the Glove on front. He no longer needs padding but can't handle the rocky trails because he lives in a grassy pasture.

  • The Whole Horse Symposium: Mind Body Spirit.  October 15 and 16. The Nat'l Equestrian Center in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. Great discounts for 3 or more and early birds. Fantastic lineup. Priceless conference.
  • 2011 NO Laminitis Conference. The first annual with Dr. Robert Bowker, Dr. Eleanor Kellon and other major players. August 5, 6, 7. Syracuse, NY. Only $175!
  • Under the Horse, 10 DVD series with Pete Ramey. $250 and worth every cent.
  • Equine Sciences Academy to learn about all aspects of natural horse care. Audit available
  • The Horse's Hoof. Article series on the frog is archived.
  • My site, 4 Sweet Feet, for many articles on trimming and natural horse care all geared to the owner. Free trimming videos focused on the rehab trim for the owner are posted.
  • The Swedish Hoof School has some very interesting You Tube videos on hoof mechanism.
I hope you will share my posts far and wide. My goal is education for the horse owner. If you can't find a trimmer in your area, I will help online. I am available for affordable clinics for owners who want to learn to trim their horse. For other resources, kindly check my site. Thanks for spreading the word about care for the natural horse!

So How Do My Horse's Feet Look? Learning to Evaluate Your Horse's Hooves

It seemed like every day I trimmed horses, I was asked the same question, over and over again: “So, how do my horse's feet look?"

It wasn't long before I had an epiphany: Why not teach the owner to evaluate and trim her own horse? If I could do it, why not other owners?

Before long it was me asking, “So how do your horse's feet look this month?” And the owners couldn't wait to answer. Because every month, the feet looked better and better. After 7 months, they usually looked exceptional and I was off the case and on to new students. Vets and farriers alike were asking the proud owner-trimmer, “So who does your horse's fantastic feet?” Oh that was music to my ears! For the vast majority of horses, this is not rocket science. If you want to understand 'all things hoof' at the molecular level, you sure can be. But if on the other hand, you want to put a nice foot on your horse and then hit the trails, by jove I say let's keep it simple!

The coffin bone is sitting in the capsule. You can see the laminae inside the wall and also where the bars would be in the back of the foot.

In a sound horse the coffin bone sits 4 to 11 degrees off the ground and draws flat at a gallop. Notice the unfortunate 'moth-eatien' perimeter common among our domestic horses. The coffin bone suffered too much concussion.

In the first photo you see a hoof capsule that I cooked down on my outside grill. The primary goal of trimming is to encourage the hoof capsule to grow a strong, protective enclosure for the coffin bone and soft tissue structures(cooked off) which are located in the back of the foot.

Inside the capsule you can still see remnants of the laminae. The coffin bone also had laminae on the surface and the two lamina were connected. See how the coffin bone sits in the capsule. The lateral cartilages are soft tissue structures on either side of the back of the coffin bone; they cooked off. The digital cushion, also gone, was located in the back center of the foot, over the frog. Dr. Robert Bowker has likened soft tissue structures of the hoof to the excellent, gel padding found in running shoes. One of the jobs of the soft tissue structures is to absorb shock.

Run your fingers from the hairline down, and note with a marker or chalk, where the healing angle stops. That's how much good wall to coffin bone connection you have. Ideally it runs to the ground.  Some horses do flare right from the hairline.

In step one of a foot assessment, I run my fingers down the hoof wall, feeling the angle of growth as seen in this photo with my first model from Allie Hayes, of Horse Science. I call her 'Honey Bunny', a wonderful horse who gave her life to educate us bipeds. In most traditionally cared for horses, the first inch or so of wall growth is the angle the horse would like; the rest of the foot is what he is stuck with. If shod, plastic shoes included, the poor horse is cast with no hope of growing a good foot. Jaime Jackson calls this good, top connection, the healing angle. With the correct trim and diet, the healing angle grows to the ground within 7-12 months. Let's take a look at the hooves of three horses:
  1. Sunny, Off the Track Thoroughbred
  2. Eddie, Quarter Horse Cross
  3. Daniel, Percheron
Love "Sunny" Days, Off the Track Racehorse

Rehabbed OTTB: feet, body, mind.

Sunny (a clicker trained horse), now 12, is my Off The Track Thoroughbred; I rescued him as a rising 6 year old.  I gave him a year off to be a horse on full turnout with a small herd in Unionville, Pa. and revisited his ground training. Rebacked as a 6 year old, he immediately came up lame in a sand ring. What a surprise that was. It took another year to rehabilitate his partially torn, high suspensory. 

Front view of right front hoof in June. This is the tail end of our spring grass season.

The side or lateral view shows a slight flare (bad), short toe and low heel (both good). Note correct hairline angle down to the ground.

Above, here we are in June, 2011, at the tail-end of our spring, high-sugar grass season. On the front view, from the hairline to the black, horizontal marker line is the healing angle, the hoof Sunny wants. Below the black line is flared hoof wall where the lamellar connection between hoof wall and coffin bone broke, a sign of laminitis due to spring grass. Spring shots may have also played a part.

It is my habit to sharply (60 degrees or so) bevel or angle the outer (dark) and inner wall (bright white) from April 1st to July 1st in an effort to avoid flare. This is called the rehabilitation trim. Although he became gimpy on the gravel driveway this spring, he was rock solid sound when trotting down hills, mounted or unmounted. If he is happy to slam his 1,000 lbs on the back of his feet, on a grassy down hill, I am happy too.

Before evaluating Sunny's hoof, I would like to discuss some terms. In this solar view below, notice the perimeter of dark outer wall. On a white hoof the outer wall is an egg shell color. Inside his outer wall is the inner wall or water line. Most farriers don't talk about the inner wall. When I first started I confused it with the white line. The inner wall is always bright white, regardless of hoof color. Go in one more time and that is the laminae or white line; it's actually off white and often, if you look closely, you can see what looks like scales or leaflets. With a big flare the laminae often pulls apart at the ground level and you can really see the disconnection. A healthy laminae or white line is very thin and tight. Next of course is the sole, then the frog. A healthy foot has a concave sole. Another wall, the bars are on either side of the frog. They begin at the heel and slope gently to mid frog.

Sole view where I marked (A) the extent of his sole concavity and (B) the open angle of his heels, aka decontracted heels.
"So how do these feet look?"  

  1. In the first photos, the hoof has a nice cone shape. Good feet come in a variety of shapes, some cone and some more upright. The outer surface is smooth showing no laminitic rings. There are some superficial, vertical cracks along the bottom of the wall created by a response to changes in the environment: wet, dry, wet. In the (hopefully) dry months of July and August, the wall will look like smooth gray granite. Even healthy hooves are on a continuum if your weather and ground vary.
  2. As noted, he has flare (disconnected laminae) in the lower portion of his foot. Because of this flare, I would expect some loss of concavity on the bottom, sole view. As an aside, when I am helping a horse grow his first well-connected wall, I have noticed that concavity of the sole will start to form when about 2/3's of the hoof wall has the correct, healing angle.
  3. When viewed from the side, Sunny's hair line slopes down, telling me his coffin bone is well placed. The hairline angle may vary a bit depending on his hoof continuum. I do not force any particular angle. However, a horizontal hairline, which we will see in a moment on Eddie, tells me the horse is incorrectly walking on the front of his coffin bone. According to Pete Ramey's research, the coffin bone in an excellent hoof is within the range of 4 to 11 degrees off the ground in the back. (See the photo where I am holding the coffin bone off ground parallel above.) Ground parallel is not correct. You can only see these angles on radio graphs but I have found that if you just do the natural trim, your horse will find what is right for him. As for evaluation, just look for a downward sloping hairline on the side.
  4. On the sole view, I have marked his uneven concavity which I expected. Whenever the laminae loses substantial connection: (A) the hoof capsule is too far up the leg and (B) the coffin bone, always under the horse, is too close to the ground. How all this occurs and what actually happens is a heated topic of debate that you can research elsewhere. Again, as I do the trim, the perfect connection will grow in and full concavity will appear. No worries.
  5. I also marked, on the sole view, the open angle of his heels at the back of the foot. That is another sign of a good foot. The heels are decontracted. Contracted heels on the other hand, point towards the toe or even angle in; I have seen hooves where the heels actually touch! In effect the horse created the additional structure he needed, almost like a natural bar shoe, in order to protect his unhealthy frog and weak back-of-foot. (Remember our shock absorbers: two lateral cartilages and one digital cushion per foot.) As the frog and internal structures improve, most horses grow excellent, decontracted, short heels. Heels should not be forced apart with an 'opening cut' because the horse will then land on undeveloped or unhealthy structures. Ouch!
  6. The frog's central sulcas, in the center back of his foot, is on the mend. I will treat it daily until it is a thumbprint. I treat until it looks healthy. Don't stop just when it stops hurting.

The Before Story: Thin, Shelly, Racehorse Feet are created by people and are not congenital.

Off the track racehorse has thin, shelly feet. Laminitic rings run the full hoof length. The thin wall chips easily.
  1. Notice the perimeter of the hoof wall. As soon as it hits the ground, the paper thin wall chips. Compare this to Sunny's June feet. It does take several hoof capsule growths for a horse to develop correct wall and sole thickness. Lots of movement really helps.
  2. Sorry I don't have a sole photo. They were flat and thin. The frogs were pencil-thin and unhealthy. When viewing the foot from the bottom, the outer (dark) wall and inner (bright white) wall were so thin that in areas, one or the other would disappear.
  3. That white band you see coming out of the hairline is just the periople and is perfectly normal. When wet it often appears bright white. I have seen draft horses with the periople running half way down the wall.
  4. When I first ran my fingers down his front walls, I noticed that they actually angled in, 'inside the vertical' and then flared out. My guess is that due to the suspensory tear behind the right knee, the farrier over-trimmed Sunny's hooves and put him in small shoes to relieve pressure when raced. Of course this was in lieu of rehabbing him. The shoeing job forced the foot to grow in an ice cream cone shape!
  5. Below are 4 butt cracks signifying thrushy feet. If your horse's feet touch wet ground or manure, consider investigating and cleaning the foot daily. Treat unhealthy frogs. No frog, no foot. The Horse's Hoof has a great series on frogs. Thanks to that series, I am much better at frog care.
Four butt cracks means thrush. Horses can not move happily on infected frogs. Keep a watchful, daily eye on your frogs.

Eddie, Quarter Horse Cross

Eddie when his owner and I started working on his hooves.

Eddie is turned out for 18 hours a day and ridden every day in an arena or on trails. He is 17 and is trimmed by his owner who now trims professionally in my area. His diet is primarily forage. When his owner began the rehab process, she trailed out in padded Epic boots but now is using unpadded Gloves. He requires no protection when working on grass.

Eddie's rehabilitated hooves in June have a cone shape, granite-like horn color with horizontal front hairlines.

The side or lateral view shows a hoof under the horse, nice mustang roll and a correctly descending hairline.
"So how do these feet look?"
  1. They all have a nice cone shape. His toes are short, just where he wants them. (Not based on a formula, in other words.) There is no noticeable flare. We are still in our spring grass season so it's not surprising to see a few laminitic rings. 
  2. From the side view you can really see the mustang roll that is critical to a good trim. If you trim the bottom flat, as in the 'pasture or farrier trim', you will never grow a well connected foot without flare. 'The Mustang Roll' is created by rasping the wall from the bottom at an angle; then trimming the wall from the top at an angle; finally by running your rasp around the edge, you round the entire perimeter, from heel to heel. It's amazing how this simple process relieves mechanical stress and allows the wall to grow out perfectly, well connected to the coffin bone.
  3. The front side view appears a bit 'bull nose'; I would check the heel height and just make sure they aren't too low. (Range 1/16" - 1/2"over the exfoliated sole if the frogs are healthy. To find the exfoliated or 'live sole plane', just scrape your hoof pick on the sole. The old stuff will scratch off, in most cases.)
  4. Notice from hairline to ground, Eddie's short heels, as viewed from the outside. If he were to move to the desert they might become even shorter, as would the toes.  His soles might thicken in response to movement on hard, dry ground. His capsule might move down the leg a nick and on radio graph you would see the coffin bone sitting higher in the capsule, just as we see in the mustangs of the western U.S. I mention this because often we owners don't see hooves in climates dramatically different from our own. Again this is part of the healthy hoof continuum.
The side view of Eddie's hoof shows short heels, full concavity from the frog to the laminae aka white line, and a beveled or angles outer wall.

From the sole we again see that nice round shape with the angle of the heels pointed out, in decontraction. The sole has a shallow bowl shape. The frog is sturdy and healthy, devoid of fungus and bacteria.

3.  In the side or lateral view of the sole, you might notice that in some parts, only the outer dark wall has a 45 degree angle or bevel on it. Because Eddie has no flare, his owner has applied a maintenance trim. She is allowing the inner, bright white wall to grow a nick over the sole. Typically Eddie wears down the inner wall at the toe. Giving the sole just that tiny bit more concavity which travels from the frog to the laminae and then up to the top of the inner wall can greatly improve barefoot performance according to Pete Ramey. It certainly is what we observe in the wild. Please see below, where there's a 'maintenance' self-trim on my hoof specimen from the desert in Australia. 
4.  In the second photo, I notice what a nice round shape Eddie's foot has. The cracks on the right side of the sole tell me that he plans to exfoliate it himself. No need to trim his sole; let him do it.
5,  The lumpy line on the right perimeter of the hoof is actually laminae, 'extruded laminae'. The foot probably got wet at one point, then dried and a part of the laminae or white line was squished up. It is completely cosmetic and harmless. Let Eddie wear it off.
6.  The central sulcas is located in the rear middle of the frog. It should like just like Eddie's, a thumb print. When cleaning the foot, daily if your horse lives in any moisture or manure, make sure that area is not sensitive to the hoof pick or any hand pressure. 900 lb Eddie can canter down hill on those babies. Healthy frogs are grown and except for nipping off a tag or perhaps a flap covering an indent that might become infected, I do not routinely trim them. They want to be callused. If sensitive, treat. Again check out The Horse's Hoof series.

Here's the hoof of a feral Brumby from Australia. Notice the "maintenance" trim, the beveling of just the outer wall.
Feral bromby hoof from Australia's hard desert.

  Let's have a look at Eddie's before shots.

Eddie is standing on four beer cans. Long toes and long heels with laminitic rings.

A gelding in high heels is not a pretty site.
  1. Once your eyes have seen a few rehabbed feet, you will immediately gasp at these long toes and may even faint when you see heels the long. Poor Eddie is walking on the front of his coffin bone.
  2. See how horizontal the side hairline is? Ouch! The coffin bone within the capsule is standing on it's toe. Dr. Bowker has said that you will find remodeled (worn down) coffin bones in most domestic horses. Instead of a nice smooth edge, Eddie's coffin bone is most certainly 'moth eaten', just like the majority of our domestic horses. See the bumpy perimeter of my coffin bone in the beginning of this post.
  3. On the side of Eddie's left front foot can you see the bulge above his hairline. It begins about one third back from the front, and continues to the back, over the heel bulbs. Internally that is the lateral cartilage that is being shoved up the leg by the incorrect structure of the foot.
And the view from the sole:

Side view of the sole reveals good concavity, a healthy frog, but too much wall. And lots of heel.

Eddie's trying very hard to shorten his toe from 12:00 to 2:00! Otherwise quite a nice shape with healthy frog, which is so critical to the successful rehab.
  1. He appears to have full concavity which is great. I love the round shape that is often the sign of a horse who hasn't spent much time in shoes.
  2. Eddie is trimming his own toe back to where he wants it. (Toe at 12:00 to 2:00) Some people will see that and immediately call for shoes thinking that he might wear down his whole foot! No, he is just attempting to self trim into something he can walk on.
  3. Heels take some discussion.
    • From the side view, when Eddie was standing, the heels were definitely long; the horitzontal hairline is a dead give-away. Looking at the heels from the sole view, they are also standing too far over the sole. 1/16" to 1/2" is the norm, if the frog is healthy.
    • Also check out, from the sole view, the length of heel from hairline to the actual heel he stands on; it is also long. The good news is that he has a healthy frog so we can confidently rasp his heels down and back where they belong. I wouldn't lower them more than 1/2" on one visit.
    • But what if his frogs were thrushy? I would leave enough heel to protect them then rigorously treat the frog. Forget about heel height; it will come along as frogs rehab.
    • Make sure the horse can walk off sound. Never trim a horse lame. That's nuts in my view.
    • Just as the coffin bone can be too close to the ground, so too the lateral cartilages and digital cushion, back-of-foot. When this happens, a lot of rehab has to happens as the heels grow towards what Eddie wants.
  4. Take a minute to compare Eddie's before and after photos. During the transition, Eddie never took a bad step. As in all things related to Equus, the time it takes is the time it takes.
  5. The bars are another hoof wall. They begin at the heels and slope down towards mid frog. If the bars stand over the outer wall, I trim to the correct height, a bit over sole. Please don't excavate into the sole. When bars become too long, they may dig into the ground or 'lay over'. According to Dr. Bowker, they do not 'impact' or press deeply up into the foot. His conclusions are based on thousands of dissections.
  6. Eddie also has 'sole ridge' that is located next to the frog, on the sole. It begins where the bar ends, at mid frog and runs the length of his frog, on the right side. I scrapped the sole next to it so you could see the ridge more clearly. On some horses, it can run around the entire frog, on the sole, from the end of each bar. This hoof created more structure  because it is needed. If the ridge is still there after 3 months, I may begin to trim it, however normally it exfoliates on its own. I have never seen sole ridge on a good foot. Pete Ramey used to trim the sole ridge in his book, Making Natural Hoof Care Work for You,  but over time has stopped the practice because he made too many horses tender as noted in his book-update article, Making Natural Hoof Care Work.
And finally,

Daniel, Percheron
The amazing Daniel, beloved by all at Tory Hill.
Daniel started life with the Amish and for 8 years worked a farm in Lancaster, Pa. He remained a stallion, thus that glorious neck, before transitioning to a dressage gelding used for teaching. One of his students bought him and took over the care of his hugely flared feet, complete with a matching crack. Now he is part of a primarily OTTB herd (don't tell him he isn't a racehorse), on full turnout and ridden a few times a week, lightly. He is in his early 20's. He never wore boots.

Below, here is where we started. Somewhere along the line, Danny injured his coronary band. Then, unrelated to the injury, huge flare was allowed to developed. Finally the outer wall cracked in response to the mechanical stress of the flare and deformed wall. The crack had been with Daniel since his Amish days.
The outer wall accomodates the massive flare by cracking. Don't let this scare you. I took the flare way back. His owner maintained the mustang roll and the flare grew out, and along with it, the crack. Its worth soaking a long term crack to kill nasty inhabitants.

The damage is evident.
Another view of the damaged hoof wall emanating from the coronary band.
And below, Just beautiful! The damage to the coronary band, although still present, is less evident in the wall when the correct hoof capsule is grown. How long does it take? As long as it takes. Growing out cracks is straight forward. Shoes make cracks worse and do not 'hold the foot together' as I have been told countless times.

Grow out the flare and voila, a lovely draft foot trimmed by his owner every other week.

There is a widespread but incorrect belief that big horses need big, flared feet. When you look at severely flared draft hooves, from the sole view, they will look triangular with points at the toe and on either side. As always, with correct and patient natural trimming, the feet come around. They're still big feet! If you have a draft horse, you might be interested in Pete Ramey's latest That's My Horse: Drafts.

Below, look at the width of the back of the frog! Now that's a central sulcas shaped like a thumb print. Talk about decontracted, healthy heels. Danny's owner couldn't have done it without her Hoof Jack! Can you imagine holding this big guy's foot for a trim?

With the correct trim, Danny's feet remain substantial. Hats off to his owner.

In conclusion, rehabilitation of the equine foot occurs at each horse's pace and is heavily dependent on:
  • The diet,
  • The environment,
  • Movement and
  • The trim, in that order.
Please remember that even exceptional feet exist on a continuum.

On occasion your pony may get a laminitic ring or a quarter crack or a chip in the wall or an abscess. Be patient yet knowledgeable with her rehabilitation and always do the best you can. As long as your horse is sound, in good weight and has a shiny coat, life is good. 

I hope I have given you some useful information to assist you in the evaluation of your own horse's hooves.

Next month I will post a pictorial discussion of many common 'oddities' you might see in barefeet that are: just out of shoes or poorly trimmed or good feet having a bad day.

Until then, see you on the trail!

Here are some resources that you might be interested in

For a more in depth understanding of the hoof and how it all works here is a small sample of resources:
  •  The DVD set Under the Horse by Pete Ramey
  •  Clinics with Dr. Robert Bowker
  •  Courses with the Equine Science Academy
  •  Whole Horse Symposium in Missouri on October 15-17  Dr. Bowker and Dr. Tomas Teskey among many others, will be presenting. This is a priceless opportunity to talk to the best and brightest.
  •  I have free, basic trimming videos for applying the rehabilitation trim on my site at 4sweetfeet.com
  • The Horse's Hoof.  Note that all trims are represented, not just the natural trim based on the wild horse model. Personally I don't agree with the more invasive trims. It's a nice resource though and worth reading with a critical eye.